Just listen, even if you don’t understand the language

Recently, I had some email correspondence with a reader in France, a mathematician and someone who knows a lot about Russian poetry.

Though I grew up reading classics of Russian literature, it was mostly novels, “Doctor Zhivago” being a favorite. I also loved (still love) Chekhov’s short stories and Turgenev’s writings. As for poems, I read some by Pushkin, Yesenin, and Anna Akhmatova, but didn’t know anything about Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, whom the reader in France highly recommended. (I mentioned Doctor Zhivago in “FEBRUARY FLOWERS” and quoted Yesenin in the new novel I just completed.

“Very few translations in another language are able to convey the miraculous harmony and strength of many of their poems,” this reader wrote, and suggested that I listen on the web to Mandelstam and Brodsky’s poems read in Russian.

So I did, after reading the English translation of their poems. This reader was right. Though I didn’t understand a word of Russian, I felt the power of the language. A violent gust of wind, an exploding volcano…and sometimes, a deep meandering river.

It made me almost want to learn Russian if only to understand these poems better.

Language is a mindset, as I mentioned in a previous post. So much is lost in translation. As someone who has translated several books of her own, I surely appreciate the complexity and profundity of a language.

Featured image: Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), one of the most popular and influential Chinese writers in the 20th century. I was a big fan of hers when I was at college, and I often skipped classes and meals to read her books. 

Home is where your heart belongs or is it something else?

This morning, my friend Stephanie sent me several TED Talks about “home.” Two weeks ago, we discussed things like home, belonging, community, etc. during our long walk at Vasona Park.

Where is home, what’s home, who are we in relation to “home”? According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of “home” is “one’s place of residence.” But of course, physical location speaks of just one element of this word’s broad coverage.

In the TED Talks Stephanie shared with me, Pico Lyer says that home is where you have become yourself. Taiye Selasi says that for those who have lived in many different parts of the world, they are not multinationals but multi-locals, defined by the places and people they have had close contact with. In my latest novel manuscript, Song of the Daisies, the protagonist, Moli Yang, an Asian-American woman, decides that home is where one’s heart belongs.

I’ve lived in the US for many years, yet I’m reluctant to call here home. Neither my husband nor I have family other than our kids, in the US, and we travel to Europe and China as often as we can to visit our parents and siblings. When I tell people that I’m going to China, I don’t use the word “去” ( go to), but the word “回” (return). Yes, it’s a homecoming, though not entirely so–I feel an outsider where I grew up. Nostalgia is bitter-sweet, like dark chocolates, as I wrote in a recent post.

Stephanie and I have known each other for just several months, yet she said that she felt closer to me than to many of the people she had known for years. Being a black raised in an almost-all-White community in the Britain, being an accomplished violist who is now seeking a new career in the tech-driven, white- and Asian-dominated Silicon Valley, and being married to a Caucasian man, she has always been trying to find out her identity.

As for me, I came to the U.S. in my early twenties, and didn’t devote myself to writing until having worked in high-tech for nine years. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, where technology and entrepreneurship are valued more than everything else, where engineers and VCs thrive, not writers.

Stephanie and I have a lot in common: the sense of displacement, the dilemma of wanting to be here and there at the same time, the guilt of being away from aging parents, the challenge of raising children in an unfamiliar educational system, the thrill and learning of being in an interracial marriage……

For both of us, it’s no easy task to define “home,” which is subjective, relative, and hard to be captured in one brief statement.

What does “home” mean to you?

Featured image: me with Sandra Cisneros, a writer I admire deeply. Taken in San Francisco. “Home” is a major theme in her writing.

Testimony of a reluctant “soccer mom”

My five-year-old recently joined a local youth soccer league. Two practices a week and a game every weekend. He loves soccer and is really proud of his “league” membership. His idol is Messi and whenever I play soccer with him, he would practice “Messi-style shooting techniques,” which we’ve watched together many times on Youtube, on me.

I just received his league schedule for the coming Fall, and for the next three months, on Saturdays, his team, the Lions, would play Little Warriors, Luck Charms, Golden Tigers, Thunder, Bandits, Red Dragons……. As I was going through the list, I was acutely aware that I’d officially joined, despite my hesitancy, the army of “soccer moms,” a term that used to puzzle or even amuse me before I had children of my own, and a population that seems to have become a voting demographic for some politicians such as Bill Clinton. (Sarah Palin’s “hockey moms” is essentially the same thing.)

Considering that my 8-year-old daughter has three to four gymnastics practices every week (she’s doing competitive and once said to me, “Mom, you cannot deny my passion!” when I was trying to talk her out of it), my time for writing or, really, anything else, will dwindle even further.

Growing up playing mud and sand on a state-run farm in China, having spent most of my after-school time roaming around till dark with my friends, fishing, climbing trees, picking wild fruit…I’m a complete stranger to such youth sports league stuff and all the so-called structured playing.

Last week, I read Alice Munro’s short story, “The Love of A Good Woman.” My childhood is like that of the three wandering boys, with little parental guidance.

Last Wednesday, the day after we returned from China, my son had his first league practice. While he was having fun with his new friends on the green, I started a conversation with the mom who volunteered to be our group’s liaison. When I mentioned how intense the youth league’s schedule was, she smiled good-naturedly. “Well, it gets worse,” she said. As it turned out, she and her husband were both devoted “soccer parents” and “hockey parents,” their two boys aged 5 and 10. They’d been traveling for their older son’s frequent tournaments, some in Los Angeles, and other places far away from the bay area.

My kids are both athletic, but I have no desire for them to go professional. I want them to have fun, and hope sports can help with their physical strength and social skills. It amazes me how serious American parents are when it comes to sports for their kids.

But it seems too late for me to retreat now. My daughter is also starting horseback riding, on top of gymnastics, as she “looooooves horses,” and my son, other than soccer, wants to do wrestling (he’s done plenty of practice with me) and maybe kung fu, too.

So I have no option but add miles steadily to my forever messy mini-van, yet another embodiment of busy parenthood.

(Featured image: local people’s houses, Longji, Guangxi Provinces.)


Jiuzhaigou Valley, a dream shattered by earthquake

A week ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake erupted in Sichuan, where the scenic Jiuzhaigou Natural Reserve is located. 25 people vanished in the earthquake and more than 500 people were injured.

Other than the tragic loss of life, the earthquake also caused widespread damage to the landscape, which used to be famous for its luxuriant forests, colorful lakes, and beautiful waterfalls.

Here are some photos of Jiuzhaigou before the earthquake. jiuzhaigou photos

Here are some before and after shots.  http://news.ifeng.com/a/20170814/51629684_0.shtml#p=1

When I was in China in August, I had planned to visit Jiuzhaigou with my family and parents. I’d been wanting to visit it since I was a child, fascinated by the documentaries and books about it. But in the end, we decided to go to Guilin in Guangxi province instead as my mother, still recovering from her recent hospitalization, didn’t want to travel far. While I was appreciating the mountains and rivers in Guilin and Yangshuo, I somehow was also thinking about Jiuzhaigou, wishing I could visit there as well.

Now, as I’m mourning the tragedy in Jiuzhaigou, I cannot help but imagine what it would be like if we did visit Jiuzhaigou, and if we happened to visit while the earthquake struck……

Now, Jiuzhaigou is gone, and it can take a long long time before it’ll recover if it ever recovers. Nature is vulnerable, so is life.

(Featured image: Longji Terraces, 龙脊梯田,Guangxi Province.)


Guangzhou, a city where people walk fast

I’ve just returned from a month-long trip to China. It was hot and humid (humidity > 90% ) in Guangzhou, where my parents live and where I went for college, and many afternoons, a thunderstorm erupted and swept the city. Every time a lightning bolt struck, my two kids would cheer as they’d rarely experienced thunderstorms.

Air quality in Guangzhou in general is much better than that in Beijing, in part because it’s near the sea and has more rain. Here you seldom see people wear face masks, and during my stay, the sky was blue most of the time. Before the trip, I had been a bit worried about my son’s asthma and had brought a lot of medicine just in case. But he was totally fine throughout our stay, and didn’t complain about his breathing even once.

I noticed this time that people walk really fast in Guangzhou. All over the world, pedestrians are moving faster than before, but it seems to me that people in Guangzhou are even in a greater hurry. According to one study,  Guangzhou is ranked number 4 (Singapore is number 1 while New York number 8) by the speeds at which people walk.

“You have to be ready to catch every possible opportunity,” one of my friends, a Guangzhou resident, replied when I mentioned that people walk fast in Guangzhou. “There’s just too much competition,” he then added. Later, as we were waiting for a ride, he was on the phone constantly, talking or texting, only raising his eyes periodically to see if our ride had arrived.

For the locals, it’s hard not to feel the heat of competition. When I went to college in Guangzhou, the city had about 5 million people. Now, twenty years later, the number has increased to over 14 million, not to mention a huge influx of migrants living and working in Guangzhou, one of the richest cities in China.

Among eight million new graduates in China each year, Guangzhou is high up in the list of where they want to work.

No wonder real estate here is in such high demand. In Tianhe Bei district, where my parents live, you see realtor offices everywhere, sometimes, three or four of them right next to each other. (Pet-related businesses are abundant, too.) If you stop to look at the advertising on the windows, a smiling agent would come out from the office to chat with you. A 1000-square-foot apartment in this area can easily sell for one million US dollars.

But with the average salary being just slightly over one thousand US dollars a month in Guangzhou, you wonder how people can afford to buy real estate here. 

Even if you work multiple jobs, and even if you quicken your pace to a run…

(Featured photo: my son dabbing at Hua Cheng (City Flower) Plaza in Guangzhou.)

More and more Chinese Teens are coming to the US to study

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about the murder of a Chinese student in the UK and parachute kids and discussed the phenomenon of young Chinese students studying overseas. In the US, 1/3 of international students are now from China.

The trend of Chinese students coming to the US to study, despite the Trump administration’s new directives on immigration enforcement and international travel, will continue, and a variety of businesses, from American colleges and private K-12 schools, middleman agencies, tutoring and test preparation services, to local restaurants and luxury goods companies, will continue benefiting from this trend.

There’re other gainers, too.

I recently came across an American family, and the mother told me they accommodated three high schoolers from China in their house. She complained that one of them spent most of his time playing video games and he ignored her advice and supervision. “I called his mother in China, but she told me to let him be,” she told me.

I also know someone who rented out his house last summer through Airbnb to a Chinese family whose son was attending summer camps to improve his English.

Just yesterday, I saw an ad on craigslist, posted by an agency’s housing coordinator, trying to find a Chinese American family for one of their clients, a 15-year-old high school student from China. Requirements included: a furnished room, the internet, food and transportation to and fro school, and airport drop-offs and pickups. The offered payment was $1200 a month.

For some young Chinese students, this is a good opportunity to break free from China’s education system where creativity and imagination are secondary to learning rigid academic curriculum and abiding by authority.

But for some other students from China, leaving home and studying overseas by themselves at such a young age, sometimes against their will because their parents want them to succeed, can lead to bitterness, disappointment and even despair.

I’ll continue exploring this phenomenon in my future posts.



Time to redefine the word “nerd”

One day, my daughter, who’s eight-year old, asked me, “Mama, am I a nerd?”

“No, you’re not,” I replied. “Why did you ask?” She does competitive gymnastics, plays soccer, is the fastest runner in her class, and has many friends.

She explained that one of her classmates had called her a nerd because she likes reading.

Indeed, my daughter is a voracious reader, often reading books as thick as a brick. She has her own collection and she checks out more than a dozen books from our local library every week. When she’s absorbed in reading, she forgets about her surroundings. Sometimes I become impatient with her because I have to call her many times for dinner before she answers.

When did loving reading make you a “nerd”? I can talk about our dwindling reading culture, our increasingly shortened attention span, our addiction to entertainment and social media, and even Trump’s anti-intellectual tendency. But rather, I want to redefine what being a nerd means.

According to the Merriam-Webster, a nerd is “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Clearly this definition is outdated, considering how much we depend on technology and all the things it brings along. In Silicon Valley where I live, nerds are everywhere and they are well respected. “Nerd” is the synonym of “devotion,” “innovation,” “industriousness,” and “ingenuity.”

Apple, Tesla, Google, Facebook…they’re all products created by nerds. I was reading a recent Vogue article about fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. She seems a nerd to me.

I like some of the Urban Dictionary’s definitions of “nerd.” Here are a few

  • One whose IQ exceeds his weight
  • People who’re smarter than you.
  • The person you will one day call “Boss”

I’m adding my definition: nerds are the ones who dictate and control, the ones who decide on our fate as a society.

That day, my daughter and I talked about what being a nerd means. Different definitions, different perspectives. She said, after a bit thinking, “Well, I think it’s cool to be a nerd. Isn’t the best thing in the world being passionate about what you love?”

I agreed.

(Featured image: My 5-year-old was mesmerized by a design at The Tech in San Jose, California.)





Meet my Mongolian translator, Aanjii

Since its first publication in Australia, my first novel, February Flowers, has been translated into nine languages (I did the Chinese translation myself). Two months ago, I received an email from a Mongolian girl named Altan erdene Sodnomragchaa and she said she was translating the book into Mongolian. She is currently studying Chinese in Taiwan.

Thus my correspondence with Aanjii began. I asked her about the naming culture in Mongolia, and she told me that Mongolians only call strangers by their full names, and they reserve special names for their family and friends. For her, she’s Altka for her family, Aanjii for her friends, Altan for her teachers,  啊薾妲 for her Taiwanese friends, and she has an English name too, Alice. Her Mongolian name means Golden Treasure.

In her letters to me, Aanjii talked about her loving family, her innocent, carefree childhood, where she was allowed to be just a child, and her study in Taiwan. Her family lives in Ulaanbaatar, a modern city where locals have access to movies and books from all over the world.


She told me that she resonated with Cheng Min, the younger one of the two main heroines in February Flowers, which made her want to introduce the book to the young people in her homeland.

I’ve had only a glimpse of the Mongolian culture through reading and other resources, including watching a BBC program about eagle hunting and training in the Western Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Mongolians seem such people with strength, warmth and a strong spirit.

Unlike February Flowers‘ other translators who have been commissioned by local publishers for their work, Aanjii is going to translate the book first, and then find a publisher in Mongolia. I admire her courage and hope that she’ll get a grant to help her.

Aanjii’s translating “February Flowers” into Mongolian

Aanjii wrote again last week and said that she would love to invite me to Mongolia for a book tour when the Mongolian version of February Flowers is released.

Aanjii, thank you for your hard work, and I so much look forward to seeing you in Mongolia someday. 😀





Nostalgia — bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates

The SF bay area, where I live, throngs with immigrants and transplants. Once I had dinner with friends, and we realized, with a bit amusement, that the twelve of us were from eleven countries.

So here comes nostalgia for me and many of my friends.

Nostalgia is a blend of memory and imagination. Nostalgia cannot be measured by logic. If it has a taste, it’s bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates.

An evening. A little before midnight. You taking a walk, alone, in your hometown which you haven’t visited for many years.

You walk in a mist that has made the city cold and foggy. A bus passes carrying only a few passengers, its wheels splashing through puddles. The air is unusually fresh—a treat, one may say. The thick daytime smoke from the giant chimneys of the chemical factories is temporarily dormant, so are the loud motorcycles and scooters that infest the city like locusts. Without the distraction of noises and crowds you begin to appreciate the low-slung, mustard-brick houses covered by overgrown ivy, wedged between newer condos, the pebble-surfaced alleys without streetlamps, and the thousand-year-old Clouds Pavilion that had been burned down and been rebuilt twenty or more times over the years.

A young night-shift worker in blue uniform is biking towards you, one hand holding an umbrella, the other inside his jacket. When you were a teenager you would ride hands-off, letting the bike snake through narrow, bumpy streets like a drunkard; it was considered cool. After passing you the man rings his bell—a ripple of crystal sounds: maybe a belated hello or merely for fun.

Just like that, your eyes are moist.

Featured image: Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), one of my favorite Chinese writers. I’ll write about her in a future post.


Happy Mother’s Day!

I didn’t know what being a mother means until I became a mother myself. When my daughter was born prematurely and had to be in the NICU for three weeks, my mother called me from China and told me to take care of myself. “You need to be happy, healthy and strong for your newborn and your family,” she said.

Now I’m a mother of two children. Whenever I feel stressed, frustrated or exhausted, I think of my mother. How she raised five children on a remote state-run farm, where she, as a biologist, had to endure family tragedy, physical labor as well as political persecution. How she made clothes and shoes for my brothers and me after a long day of work, and how she brightened our shabby apartment with beautiful songs on her four-string lute (月琴), which she had played since a young age.

Later my mother returned to the city to be a librarian. In the evenings, when my brothers and I were doing homework, she would teach herself English. “If you keep learning, you will never grow old,” she once said to me. After retirement, she took up Chinese water-and-ink painting (水墨画) and, with passion and devotion, transformed herself into an artist. She still paints several hours every day.

My mother has taught me about industriousness, integrity, perseverance, and most importantly, love. The love of who you are. The love of learning. The love of life. Thank you, Mama.

Happy Mother’s Day!


Featured image: “Mom and Me,” Maya Cedergren, 8